Are Elite Colleges and Universities Discriminating Against Homeschoolers?

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Homeschooling has been around long enough for the data to demonstrate that its graduates can and do succeed in college. Students coming from homeschool backgrounds enter college with significantly higher test scores than their public (and even private) school peers. They graduate from college at a higher rate­—66.7 percent compared to 57.5 percent—and earn higher grade point averages while in school, according to one study.

Though at one time college enrollment for homeschoolers was very complicated and not always successful, many colleges and universities now include a section on their websites explaining the admissions procedures for students educated at home and many roll out the welcome mat with admissions policies tailored to their unique needs and educational experiences.

Princeton is an example of a school that takes a realistic view of homeschooling and views its applicants as more than a test score or high school transcript:

We recognize that your experience as a home schooled student will be somewhat different from students in traditional schools. We'll look at your academic record and non-academic interests and commitments within the context of your particular home school curriculum and experience.

Princeton notes that there are questions on the application that may not apply to homeschoolers and students are free to skip those questions as well as add any information the application neglects to ask that may be helpful to the admissions committee. They ask for either a traditional transcript, or in lieu of one, an outline of the curriculum, giving families the flexibility in complying with the requirements.

Still, despite the progress homeschoolers have made in educating the public about the benefits and successes of their methods, not all colleges and universities evaluate these students on a level playing field. Here are some examples:

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Yale University

Yale wants to make sure the homeschooled kids are not socially awkward:

Home-schooled applicants - Personal qualities: We look for evidence of social maturity from all our applicants and especially from home-schooled students. Your personal statement, interests and activities, and letters of recommendation should speak to your ability to integrate well with other students and tell us about your non-academic interests.

This would be fine if they really did look for “evidence of social maturity” from all their applicants. Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be the case:

Freshman Application Process: An applicant’s academic strength is our first consideration. We review grades, standardized test scores, and evaluations by a counselor and two teachers to determine academic strength. The admissions committee then factors in student qualities such as motivation, curiosity, energy, leadership ability, and distinctive talents.

I suppose that curiosity and energy will come in handy during Yale’s infamous Sex Week (See Nathan Harden’s Sex and God at Yale), when the school encourages the most profane and depraved behavior from its student body. But I’m not sure how making homeschoolers prove their “social maturity” while giving other students a pass furthers the school’s alleged academic mission.

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Dartmouth College

Lindsay Cross at the Mommyish blog interviewed an admissions rep from Dartmouth. “We’re going to want to know what the reason for homeschooling is,” the Dartmouth rep explained. “Was the student busy with another demanding pursuit, like playing music? Were they traveling with their family? Was there a lack of resources in their area? Somewhere in the application, they’re going to need to explain.”

The school requires homeschooled students to submit the home school supplement, which helps them “understand the context of the academic and extracurricular opportunities available.”

Fair enough, except the first question on the supplement asks students to, “Please tell us why home schooling was chosen for this student, and explain your home schooling philosophy.”

Dartmouth does not require public and private school students to justify their choice of schools. A student can presumably attend a $30,000/year private high school and not raise the eyebrows of admissions counselors who want to know if “there was a lack of resources in their area.” The subtext of the question, of course, is why exactly did these parents keep their kids away from the public schools? What do they have against public schools, anyway? I imagine there is a right and wrong answer to this question in the eyes of the Dartmouth admissions department.

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Northwestern University

Northwestern imposes more burdensome testing requirements on homeschoolers than it does other students:

Standardized Test Requirements: Northwestern requires the SAT or ACT with writing for all applicants.

What if I have been homeschooled? Students who have been educated at home are required to submit results of three SAT Subject Tests in addition to their SAT Reasoning Test or ACT with writing results. Math Level 1 or 2 and two other SAT Subject Tests of the applicant's choice from different subject areas are required. For students interested in the sciences or engineering, Math Level 2 is preferred.

And throw in a couple cartwheels and jump through a fiery hoop while we’ve got you in the ring!

Emory University

Emory also has added burdens for homeschoolers:

Admissions: We invite you to submit SAT II results, but they are not required unless you are home-schooled. If home-schooled, you must submit from three SAT II subject tests: mathematics and two subjects of your choice.

Homeschooled Applicants: We’re happy for home-schooled students to consider making Emory their new home too. In addition to the required results from the SAT I or ACT, we ask that a student who has been schooled at home submit results from three SAT II exams—one in mathematics and two of the student's choosing.

Homeschoolers have been fighting this particular battle for more than a decade. According to the Homeschool Legal Defense Association,

“United States House of Representatives and Senate Committee Reports accompanying Pub. L. No. 105-244 (Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act)[1998] encourage colleges and universities receiving federal funding to discontinue their discrimination against homeschoolers. The House Report specifically recommends that colleges and universities change any admissions policies which force homeschooled students to take additional tests beyond what is required of traditionally schooled students, including the GED and the SAT II exams.”

The House Report said that “Requiring additional testing only of students educated in these settings could reasonably be seen as discriminatory.”

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University of Chicago

According to the University of Chicago,

As a home-schooled applicant, you will have the same application requirements as any other candidate, plus the Home School Supplement to the Secondary School Report, which can be found on the Common Application website.

So far so good. But wait...there’s more!

Successful home-schooled applicants from the past have included more than the required application materials, such as:

SAT Subject Test scores

AP scores

Reading diaries or reading lists

Supplementary recommendations (such as from community college instructors, independent tutors, or religious leaders)

Supplementary materials (such as artwork, research abstracts, or writing)

An interview

So homeschoolers are not required to take extra tests or supply extra admissions requirements, but the website ominously advises that successful applicants have supplied “more than the required application materials.”

At what point does a warning become a de facto requirement? Whether or not the school actually does treat the supplemental materials as requirements, applicants visiting the website could reasonably believe that they would not have a decent chance of admission to the University of Chicago without them.

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Brown University

Who should complete my Secondary School Report and Teacher Evaluation forms?

The Secondary School Report form should be completed by the persons most responsible for guiding your overall learning. In addition, we would be interested to know why you and your family opted to pursue home schooling rather than a more traditional public or private school education. We would also be curious about the resources used to craft the home-schooling curriculum and about the degree of liberty you have had in guiding your own education.

We would prefer to see letters of recommendation from instructors who have taught you in a traditional classroom setting and who can speak to your abilities and potential in an objective way. For these reasons we would prefer not to receive letters of recommendation from your parents, immediate relatives, or from academic tutors in the paid employ of your family. If all of your instructors fall into one of these three groups, then we will accept letters of recommendation from any of them.

In addition to the not-so-subtle interrogation about the family’s choice to opt out of public education, Brown also adds a rather strict requirement for the letters of recommendation. Many homeschooling families — especially those whose students excel academically — pay teachers and tutors to instruct their kids in classes from time to time. Families often band together to to employ private tutors. Would these tutors be disqualified from providing a recommendation? Being “in the paid employ” of a family is no different than a private school teacher being “in the paid employ” of a family, or for that matter, a public school teacher who is “in the paid employ” of the taxpaying family whose students attend the school. It seems that Brown may only want recommendations from state-approved “educators” such as college professors and public school teachers.

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It is encouraging that most colleges and universities now accept homeschooled students. That’s a great start. Unfortunately, many schools still impose greater burdens on students educated at home than they do private or public school students. While colleges and universities have a great deal of leeway in accepting students who fit their academic and social requirements — especially private schools — nearly every institution of higher learning in the country accepts federal aid, which means they’re accountable to the taxpayers. They ought to be encouraged to evaluate homeschoolers on a level playing field with all other students and should not ask them to jump through unreasonable additional hoops not required of public and private school students. While it's reasonable for schools to inquire about the educational program and curriculum of a homeschooled student, adding extra testing requirements or interrogating a family about their reasons for opting out of public school is out of bounds. And singling out homeschoolers for extra scrutiny to evaluate their "social maturity" is just creepy.

Instead, schools should take a look at Houghton College, which welcomes homeschoolers — indeed, the school goes out of its way to make sure homeschooled students know Houghton wants them to apply for admissions:

Homeschooled students have been welcomed into the Houghton College student body for a number of years.  Our commitment is to encourage the enrollment of homeschooled students and to make our admission process as friendly to this talented group as possible.  We hope to see the number of homeschoolers increase, because we believe Houghton College to be a good college match for the backgrounds and aspirations of this group of students.

The website goes on to sing the praises of homeschoolers and the school does not impose additional admissions regulations on them. If schools want to attract some of the best and brightest students in the country, they ought to adjust their admissions policies so they are inclusive of all educational choices.